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By RONA SHARON
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One In front-a precipice; Behind-wolves. -an ancient Roman aphorism
Tiltyard at Castle Tyrone, Ireland, 1518
The command was followed by a clap of thunder. Michael slammed his visor shut and stormed into combat. Rain sheeted the marshy, torchlit lists, rendering him near blind. After hours of training, his arms throbbed from holding the lance and shield, his leg muscles burned with the effort of keeping his hot-blooded destrier at a straight gallop. The earth shook beneath the thundering stallions as mighty hoofs plowed through sludge. Dreading the collision and despising his fear, Michael couched his lance at his sinister opponent, armored in black steel cap-à-pie and bearing down on him like a dark chthonic force.
Aim low, then at the last moment strike the helm, the Earl of Tyrone's instructions resounded in Michael's head. Strike the helm, the helm ...
The shocking blow to his own helmet prized Michael out of the saddle. He crashed into the squelchy ground, whence he had risen moments before, in an ungainly heap of armored limbs.
Mud splotched the grille of his visor as massive hoofs reached his sprawled form and reared up, threatening to fossilize him in the midden. With an oath, Michael recoiled on capped elbows and spurs, glaring up at Sir Ferdinand, Lord Tyrone's shadow. "Blood from a stone!" the raspy voice mocked him. The raven visor turned toward the shrouded figure observing the joust from a recess inside the barbican. "Your incompetent sunflower is not ready! He will never be ready!"
Michael felt murderous. Yes, he had lost, again. But he could cudgel Ferdinand for drubbing him and then deprecating him to the great lord who had reared him as his own son and legal heir. Only killing Sir Ferdinand would be akin to slaying a mountain; the knight was indestructible.
Michael fell back on the pulpy alluvium, exhausted and dispirited. Rain drummed his visor; cool rivulets sluiced his face. The storm was gathering force. Dusk bled into night. Squinting at the donjon, its diamond panes glowing brightly beneath the darkening welkin, he fancied a long hot bucking by a roaring fire, a flagon of mulled wine, a juicy hunch of mutton, a pliant wench ...
The terse order sliced through his aching head, jolting his battered bones. The varlets' strong hands hauled him up and set him aright. He wrenched himself free from their steadying grip and trudged, clanking, to the end of the course. Pippin, his manservant, bridled his horse. Archangel snorted, shook its armored head, and stomped its feet in protest, fetlocks deep in mud.
Michael gentled the destrier with petting and praise. "One last time, and we will have done, O great one. My word upon it."
He swung onto his weary horse with a metallic clang, his muscles groaning at the ongoing torture like rheumatic joints on a withered nun. Pippin handed him the lance and buckler with his usual word of encouragement. "You will fell him this time, master. I know you will."
"The left shoulder." Michael eyed his complacent adversary. "He protects his heart."
"A delicate heart, eh? Forsooth, that is a point in his favor, for I doubted he had one."
"Aye, 'tis black as his suit of armor-and his soul."
"God smite him," Pippin muttered scathingly.
Michael steered Archangel to the starting line. The signal was given, and he was hurtling up the rain-battered course at full tilt, the sloughy ground quaking beneath Archangel's hoofs. The heart, the heart, Michael thought, focusing on the magnificently wrought black breastplate.
A heartbeat later, he was on his back in the muddy puddles. His left shoulder hurt as if it had been ripped from his body. He shut his eyes tightly. He felt ... routed, peppered, unworthy.
Sir Ferdinand drew rein, laughing viciously. "Mind your own heart next time, sunflower!"
The authoritative voice in the tower rumbled, "Put him on his feet and bring him to me!"
Michael, divested of his armor and a good deal of aplomb, leaked mud at the threshold to the castle's eyrie at the top of the bastion. His noble protector's preferred haunt was constructed after the Pantheon in Rome, an architectural marvel with a rounded dome and a skylight carved out of its center that formed an interior waterfall when it rained. A gilt gridiron set in the black marble floor drained the rainwater into the support pillar around which the tower stairwell spiraled and straight into the castle's water reservoir. Here, the Earl of Tyrone, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and England's bulwark against a Celtic uprising, came to study the heavens through his teleskopos.
A plethora of horn lanterns set in the rotund wall paid homage to marble busts of gods and emperors and to the arms man had wielded on battlefields since the birth of time: The twenty foot long sarissa Alexander the Great conquered Asia withal; the Roman gladius that taught the old Greek world Latin; the francisca that shattered the shields of the legionaries and catapulted the Roman Empire into darkness; the crushing Norse mjolnir, the bane of the Saxons, the Celts, the Franks, and the Iberians; the Mongol short bow that kept vast territories under Genghis Khan's thumb; and Don Álvaro de Zúñiga's innovative espada ropera, the light blade ushering the future.
Tonight, as it rained, instead of standing beneath the center skylight, training a rock crystal on a comet, the earl prowled round the cascade. "Trounced today, battered yesterday, and barely held your own with the sword the day before. You outwit your tutors in every discipline. Why can you not outmaneuver Sir Ferdinand in combat? The annual chapter of the Noble Order of the Garter approaches, Michael. My honor is at stake here, as is the future of my house!"
Michael shifted restlessly, his gaze on his toecaps, his conscience trammeled by unpalatable failure. It took all he had to drudge up the galling admission. "He is stronger."
"Brains carry a man further than might, Michael! It would behoove you to know this!"
Setting his jaw, Michael lifted his eyes. "He knows my next move before I make it."
"Then outthink him, damn you! Can you not keep your thoughts under lock and key? Must the secrets of your mind be an open tome? Did I waste two decades of my life teaching you the quadrivium, training and instructing you in the games of kings to be thusly disillusioned?"
Michael remained silent.
"Ferdinand knows that the future of my house depends upon you. He pushes you to excel."
Michael bristled. "He pushes me to commit murder, my lord."
"Alas, my only son was destroyed on a foreign battlefield years gone, and the gods have not blessed me with other offspring-until you came along. Your noble sire, who fought like a lion and died for his king at Blackheath during the Cornish rebellion, had sworn me to take his son, begotten off a second wife, and raise him as I would mine own, for fear his heir would reject a half sibling. He did not swear me to embrace you to my loving bosom and set you up as my legal heir, but I saw a bright-eyed lad, quick and sharp and steeled. I thought, 'Here be my son, here be the man unto whom I shall bequeath my lands, chattels, and the honor of my name, my heart and soul and all that I am! Here be my future'!" The earl circled the waterfall, hands clasped behind his back. "I did not expect you to fell Sir Ferdinand. He is stronger, a bloody-minded bull who would sooner crush a lit candle than snuff it out. He has fought a thousand battles and lived. I expected you to persist! To take his blows and jolt his confidence! That was the point of the exercise! Now you come to me with your head downcast, all pity-pleading and beaten ..."
Stoically Michael straightened his back. He had his lord's inches now, yet, heart-burned, he felt shorter than a mouse. Tyrone gazed at him grumpily, fondly. "Ferdinand has his weaknesses, greater than yours. I want you to attend this year's knightly chapter. It is important to me."
Michael blinked in surprise. "You would still send me to court?"
"I would send a champion!" Tyrone's dark eyes glinted. "Swift, cunning, and ruthless in his devotion to me! Indomitable. Unstoppable. Relentless. Are you this man? Or has the precocious boy I have nurtured to become the Seventh Earl of Tyrone traded his tiger spots for a plumule?"
Michael sensed without being told that his lord and mentor expected more than words from him, an assurance of sorts, some proof of his commitment and wherewithal.
"The greatest battles are not won on battlefields, Michael. They are predetermined in council chambers and ladies' beds, in courtly banquets and tournaments, in the nursery and ... up here!" He tapped his temple with a finger. "An illustrious general may win the battle and lose the war. In contrast, a downtrodden soldier who takes the worst punishment and rallies for another battle will triumph in the end. Remember the Battle of Cannae, Michael. When the Carthaginian army led by Hannibal slaughtered Varro's army on Italian soil, the Romans, incapable of stomaching defeat, withdrew, recovered, and returned at full strength to ultimately obliterate Carthage to all eternity. Survival is the key. If beaten, retreat, regroup, and rally-and never ever give!"
"Give what, my lord?"
"Give up, give in, give out ... Never! Till your last drop of blood! Do you understand?"
"I do." Michael swallowed. "Command me to London, my lord. I will do you credit."
"You will pledge it? You will do for me as I did for you?"
"More. I swear it."
"Upon your honor, you will serve none but me and let not temptation lead you astray?"
"Temptation, my lord? What could possibly tempt me to violate my pledge to you?"
Tyrone's mouth twisted wryly. "Think you I am ignorant of how you soothe your mind and body at night? You spill your vigor into wenches and souse your head with wine. You grin?"
Michael schooled his features. He could have sworn he had curbed the very emergence of a grin. Yet his lord was a master at diving thoughts. "I had as lief die than fail you, my lord."
"Attend me, Michael. The rule at court is simple: Enthrall but do not love; be loved but do not become any man or woman's thrall. Be a Spartan in an Athenian pelt, or all will be lost."
"I know my duty." Michael drew his dagger and knelt before the earl. "In blood I pledge my ever-binding fealty to you." He fisted the sharp-edged blade and was about to wrench it hard.
"Spare your hand. You will have need of it." Tyrone seized the dagger and walked over to a table laden with a gold chalice. "Come. Let us observe the proper rite of initiation. My son."
Pain and desiccation harbingered the sunrise. Michael came awake parched, sweaty, and in a state of excruciating agony. He shivered violently with cold, his skin burned, his heart palpitated madly, his brain screamed in torment, as if a thousand heated pokers cut through his flesh, and he was overcome with irrational terror. A roar of anguish tore from his throat to echo throughout the vaulted passageways, halls, staircases, and chambers of the vast castle.
The door to his bedchamber opened. Cáit, the pretty maid he bedded on occasion, rushed in to light candles. Pippin barrowed in an iron casket on a pulley and left it by the bedside. An old man marched over to examine Michael. He wore a black houppelande, a hoary beard masked half his face, silvery hair flew down his back. Dark eyes gleamed at Michael. "Hold him down!" he told the servants. "Laddy, my name is Donough O'Hickey. I will make you well again."
Michael thrashed wildly, flinging battle-hardened limbs pellmell and arching fitfully off the mattress. Semidelirious, he fought the invisible hellhounds tearing him to shreds from the inside out like a baited bear. His two attendants lost the battle in restraining him.
"Jesu, he is burning up!" cried Cáit.
The old man took charge with superior strength. He jabbed one of Michael's eyelids open, felt his forehead, and probed at his mouth. "As I thought, food poisoning, same as His Lordship."
"Food poisoning?" Cáit exclaimed disbelievingly. "Looks more like the Sweat to me."
"I will give him a physic to cleanse his bowels of venom. Leave us. You may return later to clean him up. But mind, his ailment may not pass for a sennight. Food and drink are prohibited. He may only drink my physic until he is fit."
Michael howled in frustration. "Seven nights like this?" Cursing at the violent pain ravaging his mind and body, he glared at the old healer and growled, "Get this thing out of me now!"
Cáit patted his arm tentatively. "My dearest lord-"
"Come away, Cáit. Master O'Hickey knows his business." Pippin towed her out, the mere mention of the sweating sickness sprouting wings on his back.
The Irish healer removed a precious Italian glass bottle from the casket. "Alack, the serving wench had the right of it. I did not care to stir up panic and mayhem, for you and His Lordship are afflicted with the sweating sickness. This is the second stage of the disease. Cold shivers, aches and burns, apprehension, perspiration, delirium, megrim, heart palpitations, and intense thirst."
"The Sweat!" Michael lunged up, mad with terror. "You dotant! Why conceal the truth from my servants? They will infect the vill! Have you no care for babes, Celtic tinker?"
"Fables! The contagion is in the blood. The old sages knew it, but their wisdom was torched by savages. The disease is venerius virulentus. Know you Latin? What is virus, lordling?"
"Poison," Michael chocked, agitated, feverish.
"Precisely. You have consumed natural venom that had been put in your food, such as blood of a sickly rodent. See, I was partially untruthful with the tasty wench. You cannot infect others with your breath. Nor with skin contact. The illness lives within you. Your blood is dying. If it is not treated, you will perish in three days. Recovery may take seven nights. What is your choice?"
"Life!" A stab of pain arched Michael off the bed. When it subsided, icy tremors seized him.
"Interesting. That is the usual preference among my patients." The motley-minded O'Hickey shoved a hand beneath Michael's head and put the mouth of the bottle to his lips. "Drink this."
Panting, Michael complied. His first gulp of the medicament nearly ripped the inside of his throat. "Hell's broth! What is it? Blood and uisce?" Instantly he craved more.
"The blood of Grendel's mum! He-he-he ... Lick your throat, did it?" O'Hickey cackled. "It is dragon's blood, a cordial of sweet wines, crushed pearls, lead powder, marshmallows, salt of Amen, coral, elder leaves, sorrel, linseed vinegar, worms, marigold, meadow plant, feverfew-"
"Enough!" The old rook's imbecility of mind was exacerbating his sufferance.
"Certes, if my potion is not to your taste, I could leech you. That is what they did last year in London when the plague smote them. They bled the sick three days afore they burned them."
Michael snatched the glass bottle and drained it in a long swallow. Sweetness suffused him. He fell back on the pillow, gasping for air, and closed his eyes as the palliative effect of the thick brew spread through his tormented body, soothing his flesh, his mind, his spirit ...
"You will want to sleep now, little lord, but harken well. My lord of Tyrone says you are to England for the St. George's tournaments."
"I doubt I will partake of aught but my own funeral ..." Michael heaved.
"In a sennight you will be as good as new. Better than new. You have a casketful of bottles and will need every drop to carry you through your adventures. Once a day you will have a fierce thirst on you, mayhap twice. Drink and be merry but do not let anyone find you out, nor transfer the contents into another vessel, for the elements will lose their curative qualities if not contained in glass. You may feed and drink properly but do not wet your drouth with aught else."
Michael realized the dotard had the right of it. None could know he had the plague, not even Pippin, who was to accompany him to court. His thoughts drifted. Through the mist he heard the Irishman say, "Ah, the forest of dreams beckons, and the worst to affright now lives within...."
Michael's eyes flicked open at the sharp pricking at his gullet. Darkness filled his vision, but within two heartbeats he gained focus. A polished blade of a sword reflected silvery moonbeams. A shadowy form loomed over his bed. "Cockcrow in two hours, sunflower," Ferdinand informed him, malevolence thickening his raspy voice. "King Henry's court awaits your incompetence."
Excerpted from Royal Blood by RONA SHARON Copyright © 2009 by Rona Sharon. Excerpted by permission.
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